By Jimmy Warden
We’re all going to die. I am, you are, everyone we know, and everyone else under the sun. Death is the one certainty in life that we all face, yet we all are very afraid of reaching that point. It gives us an underlying fear that no matter what we do, no matter how much we enjoy life, no matter how successful we become; death will be waiting for us. Not only that, it could be waiting around the corner for us at anytime. There are so many sad stories about people in the prime of their lives, dying young. This fear of death is in all of us. According to Karl Albrecht, “all normal human beings have an underlying existential anxiety” (Albrecht, Psychology Today, 2012). It’s so scary because all we truly know is life. However, the more that we meditate on death, the more that we tend to appreciate and love life, and experience a better version of it.
How does meditating on mortality work?
Meditating on mortality brings existential questions into your train of thought. For example, after working through 10-15 minutes of mindfulness (noticing your breath, thoughts, physical or emotional sensations, and using your breath as an anchor for when the mind inevitably wanders); an individual can ask themselves an existential question. The two provided as examples are ones that I’ve used in my experience meditating on death.
Question one could be: “who or what would you miss most if you were no longer around”? Question two could be: “how would you feel, if you knew that today was your very last day”?
After asking one of the questions, you wait to see what bubbles to the surface of your mind, and you try to notice what’s there, without judgement. It is absolutely crucial to ask the question in the second person because phrasing it that way makes it seem like someone else is asking you the question. It could also make it seem like you’re asking it to someone else and you’re listening to their response by noticing what thoughts or feelings arise in your mind.
What can meditating on mortality bring you?
Meditating on mortality can bring heightened levels of love and appreciation. There will be a greater appreciation for what we have, rather than the typical yearning for what we don’t have. Knowing that time is ticking helps us lower our desire for more material items, a higher status, or more money in our bank account. All of those things tend to matter a little bit less after meditating on mortality.
This heightened level of love and appreciation is especially potent in our intimate and familial relationships. For example, you might notice that you visualize your loved ones the first few times you ask yourself, “who or what would you miss most if you were no longer around”. Then, next time you see them, you might make an extra effort to hug them tighter or listen to them closer, knowing there are only so many of those moments left. This potency increases exponentially as you age because with aging comes less time together with those you love. People move further away from their roots, health tends to decline with age, and responsibilities are added onto people’s plates.
It also brings a heightened level of connectedness to other fellow humans. With the knowledge that the people around us are going to die, we can have more sympathy and empathy for their experiences. When people are going through challenging times, we’ll be more willing to lend them a hand because we’ll want them to enjoy as much of their limited time as they can. This can help strengthen our relationships with those people because we’ll be more genuine with our sympathy and empathy. It will also show them how much we truly care due to our willingness to sacrifice our own time to make theirs a little bit better.
It can also spark our passions a bit more. From our jobs to our hobbies, the things that we try to do each day become more enjoyable with the knowledge that we’ll only be able to do them for a limited time.
That job that was once your dream job but now makes work days feel like the plot of Groundhog Day doesn’t seem as boring or mundane anymore, because there is a new appreciation for the intricacies that arise in that same setting each day. That small talk that you have out of politeness turns into a genuine conversation. The questions you are asked that get ignored now increase your levels of curiosity. The tasks you try to complete are no longer a “have to-do” list, but rather a “get to-do” list, as those tasks take on a new level of meaning.
The same could be said for something that you have as a hobby that you once had a burning passion for, but currently don’t have that same level of passion due to the staleness of the activity. That same jog you’ve been going on for years suddenly doesn’t suck due to the fact it could possibly be the last jog you take. The paintings that you do quickly become more vibrant because the colors will eventually fade away. The writing you’ve been waiting to do starts to flow a bit more knowing one day you won’t be able to pick you up the pen or type away at a computer.
It can also bring a sense of urgency without judgement. We often get into our own way because of the fear of making mistakes and the fear of being judged by ourselves or others. Knowing that we can only take advantage of our living days for so long helps ease our fear because making a mistake isn’t as painful as regret. One of the sharpest pains we face is the pain of regret. When people are on their deathbeds and are asked to reflect on any regrets they have, a lot of people state that they wish they took more risks in their lives. This is the whole reason why people have bucket lists.
This wisdom allows us to accept the differences of others and the shortcomings of ourselves. Knowing that we are all going to make plenty of mistakes allows us to accept that mistakes are an inevitable part of life and that we are all going to come up short every now and again. And that’s okay, because mistakes aren’t final. Knowing we are free to make mistakes gives us a sense of relief, especially when we understand that mistakes are the gateways to new learning. This makes trying new things and learning new things an experimentation process because the mistakes no longer matter as much.
Not only do mistakes not matter as much, neither do the little annoyances that typically frustrate us each day. Those traffic stops, the dirty looks people give us, the ignorant or sarcastic comments people make, they don’t matter anymore because the big picture is more important.
When should I start meditating on mortality?
Considering time is not slowing down, it would be best to start meditating on mortality as soon as you can carve time into your schedule for it. I wouldn’t say “wait until you’re ready” because that day might never arrive. These are hard questions to ponder and they must be faced head on, whether you’re ready or not, and the only way to gain the benefits of meditating on mortality is to do it.
Who knows, your perspective just might change.
Albrecht, K. (March 22, 2012). The (only) 5 fears we all share: When we know where they come from, we can really start to control them. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brainsnacks/201203/the-only-5-fears-we-all-share